Rift Valley

Rift Valley

Running between Mozambique and Jordan, Africa’s Great Rift Valley displays some of its most dramatic landscapes where its eastern arm carves through Kenya from north to south. The Rift Valley floor encompasses the archetypal east African safari panorama of acacia-dotted savannah, studded with jewel-like lakes that are sometimes rimmed with huge flocks of pink flamingos. Together, lakes Nakuru, Elmenteita and Bogoria form the UNESCO natural heritage site known as the Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley.

The walls of the Rift Valley rise in steep and dramatic steps. On the western side, they rise to the highlands of Western Kenya, on whose high-altitude plateaux some of Kenya’s top athletic careers have been forged. Climbing the eastern wall, the Rift Valley rises to the Aberdare range and the knuckle-like folds of the Ngong Hills, on the fringes of Nairobi.

Traditionally, safaris in the Rift Valley have focused on just a couple of key lakes and small national parks. Expert Africa, however, with decades of experience researching The Rough Guide to Kenya, is delighted to be able to offer a wider-ranging set of options to create rewarding itineraries throughout this region.

Much of the Rift Valley has been quite heavily settled, and the wildlife here is not as prolific and species-diverse as it is further southwest in the Maasai Mara, or northeast in Laikipia or Samburu. It is therefore worth preparing for a Rift Valley safari itinerary to be as much about landscapes and exploring Kenya’s cultural diversity as it is about the Big Five. Nevertheless, Rift Valley safaris offer excellent bird-watching and a string of interesting discoveries to be made by travellers prepared to do some sometimes bumpy and dusty drives.

Safaris at Lake Nakuru National Park

Traditionally the most popular of the Rift Valley lakes, saline Lake Nakuru, with its surrounding Lake Nakuru National Park is the location of all those photos showing a pink blanket of lesser flamingos feeding on their specialised diet of algae and microscopic crustaceans in the shallow, alkaline waters. Sadly, pollution from the nearby large town of Nakuru and serious natural flooding since 2010 have combined to decimate the lake’s ecosystem, submerging some of the earth roads around the lakeshore and pulverizing the national park’s infrastructure, including its main gate and headquarters, which are still underwater. Temporary arrangements eventually gave way to new park buildings at the main entrance.

Lake Nakuru can still be worth visiting on safari, especially on a longer itinerary, and the park harbours good populations of both black and white rhinos, lions, leopards and many species of grazers and browsers. Encircled by an electric fence, Nakuru National Park can also get busy: it is easily accessed in a few hours by road from Nairobi and is the first port of call for the majority of budget minibus safaris. There are two large lodges inside the park and a number of smaller camps of varying standards around the boundary.

The town of Nakuru itself has little appeal for most travellers except as a refuelling stop. However, en route to your next safari stop, it’s worth driving up to the rim of the vast eggcup-shaped Menengai Crater, on the edge of town, where prisoners in the nineteenth-century Maasai civil wars are said to have been hurled to their deaths. More certain, and much older, history can be experienced during an excurision to the prehistoric fort site of Hyrax Hill, also on the outskirts of Nakuru.

Safaris at Lake Elmenteita and Soysambu Conservancy

The neighbour of Lake Nakuru to the southeast is the much less visited Lake Elmenteita, a shallow soda lake that has largely avoided the environmental despoliation that has damaged Nakuru. The name “Elmenteita” is derived from the Maasai word for “white dust”, which is what the lake frequently becomes in the dry season. After rain, however, its wooded shores and glassy surface provide rich pickings for keen ornithologists, especially in the ever-changing shape of flocks of lesser flamingos.

On dry land, most of the savannah megafauna, with the exception of elephants, can be observed in dawn or evening safari drives from your lodge or camp around the Soysambu Conservancy. Owned by the Delamere family – key players in colonial Kenya and still influential today – Soysambu is a reintroduction project for mammals from other parts of Kenya, and is connected by migration corridors to Lake Nakuru and the Lake Naivasha area, thus creating a large wildlife area in this part of the Rift Valley. The lions breeding on the conservancy are now in double figures, and steadily coalescing into small prides. They are much more easily seen than Soysambu’s shy leopards, which you’ll need to be lucky to observe.

Just off the highway that runs past Lake Elmenteita, the small museum at the prehistoric site of Kariandusi displays heavy stone chopping tools from the pre-human days of Homo erectus. It’s a worthwhile short excursion from any Rift Valley safari.

Safaris at Lake Bogoria National Reserve

The main attraction of Lake Bogoria National Reserve, in the northern Rift Valley, well to the north of Nakuru, is its harsh, bright beauty, contrasting its multi-blue-hued saline waters and salty fringes with the red rock of its Rift Valley surroundings and flashes of verdant green where spring water wells up to irrigate small areas of oasis-like woodland. The western shore features a string of dramatic geysers or hot springs which sometimes create ideal feeding conditions for lesser flamingos as the hot water enters the lake. But beware: the springs are not guarded and can be very dangerous. Also present at Lake Bogoria are greater kudu – this is one of the few areas of Kenya where they can be quite easily seen while on safari.

Like its neighbours, lakes Baringo and Nakuru, Lake Bogoria has been inundated in recent years and the lakeshore road is now under water. On a visit in 2018, we found the best concentrations of lesser flamingos in Kenya immediately inside the reserve’s gate, which is about 45 minutes’ drive from Lake Baringo.

There are only limited accommodation options at Bogoria – a rather anonymous hotel has taken over the freshwater springs formerly used by the local Endorois people. Otherwise, fly-camping at one of three campsites around the lakeshore is a viable alternative that can be used by more adventurous safari-goers. Most of our visitors to Bogoria, however, come to the lake on a day trip from Lake Nakuru or Lake Baringo.

Safaris at Lake Baringo and Ruko Wildlife Conservancy

One of only two freshwater lakes in the Rift Valley (the other being Lake Naivasha), Lake Baringo is an outstanding highlight for birdwatchers, with an exceptional count of water birds and dry land species. Baringo’s 458 species of birds are its biggest attraction, and it was at Lake Baringo that the ornithologist Terry Stevenson set the world record “bird-watch”, spotting 342 species in 24 hours.

The lake’s waters are deeply stained with red silt and run through a range of colours depending on the time of day and the weather. If the lack of clarity doesn’t put you off swimming, the rather nippy crocodiles should. The lake is also home to good numbers of hippos: they frequently come ashore on lakeside properties to graze the lawns at night. Like most of the other Rift Valley lakes in Kenya, Baringo has seen major rises in its water level in recent years, and several lakeshore properties have been swamped.

The people of the lake, the Njemps, are related to the Maasai, and combine fishing (traditionally from small and flimsy rafts) with livestock-herding. They build tiny, unsinkable canoes out of the fibrous and buoyant ambatch plant – unsinkable perhaps, but still rather dangerous-looking with the need it seems to have your legs mostly in the water as you paddle about. Children will sell you little carved gourds and similar souvenirs, and it may be possible to visit a Njemps village. Speak to your lodge or camp.

As well as several islands (two are largely given over to lodges), Lake Baringo has a new wildlife conservancy on the northeast shore – the Ruko Wildlife Conservancy – which you can visit on a boat safari from the one of the lakeside lodges.

Safaris at Lake Naivasha

The closest Rift Valley lake to Nairobi, freshwater Lake Naivasha was adopted as a favourite place to put down roots by the early European settlers in Kenya. With its climate made perfect by its 2000m altitude, making it resemble a lake from the English Lake District shifted to highland equatorial Africa, it is a beautiful spot – when viewed from the right angle.

Over the last three decades the lakeshore landowners have steadily devoted increasing proportions of their properties to intensive, plastic-greenhouse horticulture, sustained by water pumped from the lake. This is the source of many of the cut flowers and green vegetables in British supermarkets and the intensive farming supports thousand of migrant labourers. While it has brought jobs and income, it has had a serious impact on the lakeshore landscape.

If the gaps between the plastic-covered fields seem to be shrinking, the hotel gardens, patches of woodland and lakeshore grassland retain an enduring appeal. Attractions to visit while on safari around the shores of Lake Naivasha include the Crescent Island Game Sanctuary (now firmly attached to the mainland by reduced water levels), the former home of Joy Adamson, and now a natural history study centre, Elsamere, the Crater Lake Game Sanctuary, a sacred Maasai spot with excellent birdlife and plenty of mammals, including a remarkably habituated troop of colobus monkeys, and the private Oserengoni Wildlife Sanctuary, owned by one of the largest farms. In late August, the Rift Valley Music Festival entertains locals, backpackers, weekenders from Nairobi and adventurous tourists with a variety of bands at one of the lakeshore’s oldest backpacker sites, Fisherman’s Camp.

There are plenty of places to stay, of varying quality, around Lake Naivasha. The Loldia airstrip on the western shore has daily flights arriving from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport and flying on to the Maasai Mara. These flights make Lake Naivasha a practical place to start a Kenyan safari away from Nairobi.

Safaris at Hell’s Gate National Park and Mount Longonot

Just 1km from the road that encircles Lake Naivasha, Hell’s Gate National Park is a delightful landscape of striking cliffs and volcanic formations. There is always a good range of plains wildlife here, including zebra, giraffe, Thomson’s gazelle and other antelope, and sometimes buffalo. Unusually, you are allowed to do a walking safari through the small park, or a cycling safari if you prefer, using the mountain bikes widely available around the lake. Lions and leopards are not present at Hell’s Gate National Park, and it’s a popular venue for Nairobi weekenders.

There is no accommodation at Hell’s Gate – most visitors come on one-day safari excursions from lodges and hotels around the shores of Lake Naivasha.

Adjoining Hell’s Gate to the east, Mount Longonot National Park encircles the dormant volcano of the same name. It’s a half-day hike to the top and around the narrow rim – a walking safari that offers wonderful views of Lake Naivasha and the whole region.

Safaris at Lake Magadi

Inhospitable and low-lying, saline Lake Magadi is Kenya’s southernmost Rift Valley lake. A full 1000m below the altitude of Nairobi, and not far from the Tanzanian border, the lake is in part an industrial site for the harvesting of sodium carbonate. Doing a road safari down from Nairobi is a good excuse to make a spectacular journey past the Ngong Hills into the furnace of the lower Rift Valley. En route, the important Olorgasailie Prehistoric Site displays a hand-axe-making site and various fossils.

The rewards of a safari to Lake Magadi may be a little esoteric, but as ever birdwatchers will be enthralled – there are flamingos and other water birds on the lake, and many other birds species in the surrounding dry woodlands, as well as significant numbers of large mammals, although they are somewhat elusive.

The Geology of the Rift Valley in Kenya

Africa’s Great Rift Valley was formed by the creeping separation of tectonic plates over millions of years, as massive blocks of the earth’s crust separated and rubbed past each other. At the same time, the mantle deep beneath the earth’s crust bubbled up over the aeons, resulting in uplifting or “doming” and the creation of Kenya’s central and western highlands. Mantle “plumes” burst up through the fissures and the outbursts of molten magma (lava) spread in many areas, leaving jagged black lava fields, or created volcanoes, including Mount Kenya, the Aberdare Range, Mount Menengai and the still steaming Mount Longonot. Over the period between 20 and 3 million years ago the present Rift Valley landscape was established, after blocks of land had separated and moved downwards (grabens or “ditches”) and other sections had lifted (horsts or “eyries”). The floor of the Rift Valley is a gigantic graben, and the walls are the sides of the horsts. The Rift Valley is still moving apart, although these days more slowly, at a rate of about 2mm a year, or 2km per million years. Earthquake activity – albeit on a small scale – is still measurable, while volcanic activity is evident all over the Rift Valley, notably in the hot springs at Lake Bogoria and Lake Magadi. This volcanic energy has been harnessed for geothermal power generation at the Olkaria plant between Lake Naivasha and Hell’s Gate.

The History of the Kenyan Rift Valley

The Rift Valley’s human story has powerfully influenced Kenya’s history and the prehistoric site of Hyrax Hill on the outskirts of Nakuru town, shows evidence of ancient, Cushitic-speaking inhabitants. For at least the last 2,500 years, generations of migrants trekked into the Rift Valley from South Sudan’s marshlands, from the Ethiopian highlands and from the headwaters of the Nile. Early migrants were the Nilotic-speaking ancestors of the Kalenjin peoples who nowadays dominate the central Rift Valley and play a pivotal role in Kenyan politics. From the early seventeenth century, the ancestors of the Maasai began arriving, also from the Nile and South Sudan, raiding the local inhabitants, adopting their customs, intermarrying and acting as role models for many other people, including the Kikuyu of the central highlands. The Maasai went on to dominate much of central Kenya for at least a century before the Europeans arrived at the end of the nineteenth century.
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